Thursday, February 18, 2010

Birthday Treats

Thanks to everyone for wishing me a happy birthday. It was indeed a great birthday for me. I especially love my birthday because it comes right after Valentine's Day, which I'm sure drives Andrew nuts, but then again his birthday is always around (and sometimes on) Thanksgiving, so it all evens out.
Delicious Valentine's Day candy from Andrew

On Valentine's Day I made ricotta pancakes with banana pecan syrup. Yummy. I managed to get a few small pancakes heart shaped. I think we watched some movies before heading to Jin Restaurant for some delicious sushi. It was wonderful, and not as expensive as we expected.
Ricotta pancakes

For my birthday we took a really long bike ride along the Loire River. It was really nice and kind of fun biking over snow. Then we ate some chocolate fondue and watched some more movies. Andrew prepared a delicious dinner for me which included shrimp cocktail, bacon wrapped goat cheese, scallops on a bed of leeks and panchetta, salad, white wine, and three different types of cheeses.
After all that food we and some friends drank champagne and ate chocolate raspberry cake.
I received some lovely birthday gifts, including three books in the Wheel of Time series from Andrew, an electric blender, also from Andrew, a butterfly necklace from Amy, a recipe notebook from Catherine, a wonderful coffee maker from Sarah, excellent Silver Forest earrings from my mom, and two books from Sue.

Me on my rented bike

Yes, those ducks are walking on water; the river was partly frozen

The next day we went into Paris with the idea of spending the day at the Louvre. Apparently it's closed on Tuesdays. Oops. Then we waited an hour to get in line at the Museé d'Orsay, where all the impressionist paintings are, only to get to the front of the line and be told that Andrew's teacher card wasn't valid because he didn't have the "newest" version (which his principal ordered for him but hasn't arrived yet) so we had to pay 8€ to get in.
Van Gogh

At this point I was super pissed, especially since we only had about 30 minutes before we were supposed to meet a friend. I moped around the museum, seriously considering defacing one of the priceless works of art, and then took off on my own to meet my friend. I stopped at the English bookstore in town and bought cream soda before heading to an awesome falafel place that was recommended in Clothilde's "Edible Adventures in Paris." It was truly yummy. We then found Andrew again and wandered a bit through the Jewish quarter before going in search of Berthillon, supposedly the world's best ice cream. On the way, we stopped in Cacao et Chocolat, which is supposedly the world's best chocolate, and bought a bar (we have yet to consume it, so the verdict is still out). We finally found Berthillon, but it, too, was closed. We settled for buying some (very expensive) Berthillon ice cream from one of the many surrounding restaurants, but our mood was spoiled when they wouldn't let us stay in the restaurant to eat it. We braved the cold again and ate our ice cream in the sunniest spot we could find in front of Notre Dame. We then went to St. Chapelle, a museum built by Napoleon to house the relics of the Passion of the Christ, but alas, it was closed.
Ice cream in front of Notre Dame

At this point it was getting late so we headed back toward the train station with the intention of passing through the lovely Jardin des Plantes on the way. We got halfway through the park before a guard told us to turn around and go back the way we came. It was closed.

In need of reinforcements, we stopped at the Grand Mosque of Paris for some overpriced (but hot) mint tea before giving up and heading home. Paris had defeated us.

In other news, we made our first batch of cheddar cheese. It is now in the process of drying and forming a rind at which point we will wax it and age it for about six weeks. We'll let you know how it turns out.
Drying the cheese

Yesterday we went and had lunch at Sandrine and Alex's, which was, as always, full of delicious food and drink. We started with some basic appetizers, like fresh mushrooms with a fromage blanc dip, pistachios, and guacamole. We had paupiettes, or little bundles of meat with a vegetable charlottine, a mound of vegetables wrapped in bacon and baked. There was of course the usual cheese platter afterwards, followed by a lovely chocolate pear birthday cake with candles that Léo helped me blow out.
They also gave me a nice necklace and earring set.
I thought I was going to explode from all the food, so we went out to Châteauneuf and visited the Maritime Museum, which was okay, and then walked around the park while Andrew taught Léo to do really annoying things like hit people with sticks.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

And the winner is...

Thanks a million to everyone who gave advice on our China dilemma, especially Emma, Nicole, Sabrina, and Meagan. Our decision was made a lot easier by the fact that the school in Xi'an found other teachers in the area before we could make up our mind. So we've decided to go to Qinhuangdao! We've already told the school and they're working on arranging everything for us. Of course, now we're entering into the bureaucratic nightmare that is China. Apparently we need to show proof of our diplomas, which are in storage in Santa Monica. Andrew is trying to bribe his brother into climbing into the attic and going through the dozens of unmarked boxes we have looking for two slips of paper. We might have to re-order them from Cal, but that would be very expensive and supposedly takes three months, which is too late. We also have to do a bunch of medical stuff, which we already did in November but doesn't count for China.

I've been reading the blog of the couple who are there now, and everything I've read re-affirms our decision to go there. Also, they have pictures posted of them holding baby pandas. Perhaps not entirely ecologically sound, but unbelievably cute and something I'm definitely going to do. Andrew says that if we can hold pandas the whole year in China will be well worth it even if we end up in a Chinese prison for owning a Lonely Planet guide that doesn't include Taiwan as a part of China. The trick is getting to the pandas before the police get to us... :)

We've also been offered positions at a French summer camp from May 16-June 18, which definitely helps us in terms of finances. I'm hoping we'll get to do this Italian summer camp from June to July before we head to Beijing around July 8. Still a lot of details to work out, and if for some reason we can't get our diplomas, we might not be able to go, so we're keeping our options open and our fingers crossed!


The city of Amboise

We're on break right now, and while we don't have a lot of money to travel around, we did take a day trip to Amboise, famous as being where Leonardo Da Vinci spent the last three years of his life. He's also buried in Amboise. Amboise was a typical, cute Loire town, but smaller than other cities we've visited, like Blois and Tours.
Nicole and Justine

We went with Justine, our friend who lives in Tours, Catherine, and her Canadian friend who was visiting for the weekend. Our first stop was Clos Lucé, Da Vinci's workshop/house. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, but it was full of replicas of some of his more famous inventions, mostly a lot of war machines. The outside would have been excellent if it hadn't been below freezing, but at any rate we had fun playing on some of the replicas in the garden area.
When we were sufficiently frozen, we had lunch and then split into two groups. Andrew and Catherine's friend headed to the château where Da Vinci is buried while Justine, Catherine and I high-tailed it out of there for the warmth (and free-from-cost) of the train station to await the next train to Orléans. Andrew took some pretty cool photos in the château, but honestly after seeing 5 or 6 castles, really you've seen them all!
Outside of the château
Andrew on the ramparts
Beautiful city view
Andrew on one of the towers
Da Vinci's Tomb

We returned to Orléans to find the city covered in snow. When will the coldness end??

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A China Update

We're pretty sure we've figured out our teaching plans for next year, but haven't signed any contracts yet. We're having a really difficult time choosing. We're also being very picky, which doesn't help our situation any. We'd like to get some input from you, our dear readers. Since you're the ones who will certainly be hearing us complain for the next year, we thought we'd give you some choice in the matter. That way, we can also blame any bad experiences on you. :)

Our top choices are:

1. Ao Jia Language School in Qinhuangdao, in the north eastern corner of China. This school is run by a very lovely couple, with whom we had a lengthy Skype conversation. The apartment is very nice, and even includes a washing machine! It has all western amenities and is, of course, provided free of charge. We'd be teaching 24 hours a week to adults and high school students, many of whom are preparing for the SATs. The class sizes are really small, and there's a lot of one-on-one work. Qinhuangdao is located right on the coast, near a section of the Great Wall, and is fairly close to some great scenery, including mountains. It's also only 2 1/2 hours from Beijing, which is awesome. There's 12+ days of vacation, flight reimbursement, and average pay. The main attraction for us is that the couple is really nice and has made us feel very welcome. We've also spoken with the American couple who is currently there, and we're convinced it's a legitimate gig. Downsides are the distance to other touristy places, which are concentrated in the middle and south of China, and our vacation time might not be enough to see everything we want to, and our pay might not allow us to save as much as I want to.

2. Kidcastle Language School in Xi'an. This school has less than desirable hours (mostly evening classes six days a week), and the same pay as Qinhuangdao, but it's in Xi'an, home of the Terracotta Warriors, close to the panda reserve and an awesome nature reserve, as well as a plethora of museums, tombs, and other cultural sites. Andrew compares it to Paris, trying to convince me that there's so much to see in this region that we'd never be bored. Downside? Pretty much no vacation time. We get three days in the fall and three days in the spring, both during important holidays that we'd most likely want to remain in Xi'an for. What's the point in living here if we don't have any time off to see the cool things? Also, we haven't spoken via telephone or Skype with anyone at the school (we found them through a placement company) so we're a little unsure of the legitimacy. But an upside is that they would let us start in May instead of July.

3. Shengli New Zealand High School in Dongying: This place pays the most, up to double the amount of the other two schools, and offers the entire month of August as vacation, in addition to 10 days in the winter and the regular national holidays, bringing the vacation time to 45+ days. It's also a normal school, which means we'd have regular students and school hours. The problem is that Dongying is a relatively new town based around oil fields in the area, although it is right on the coast, and thus is kind of unappealing in terms of a place to live. We will be speaking with them sometime after March 1, which means our whole decision is put on hold until then, but despite the high pay and vacation time, this one is lowest on our list.

All three jobs provide free, western style housing, free utilities, flight reimbursement, and medical insurance. Xi'an is the only school that allows us to start in May, as opposed to July, but as we're pretty sure we've found a job in an ESL camp in France for the month of May, and one in Italy for the month of June, we'd be able to scrape by until we started our new job in China. So, what do you guys think?

French Folk Dancing

I have finally found spots to learn French folk dancing! I've been passively looking for four months now, hoping that I would just stumble upon it, and that's just what happened. The director of one of my schools is a musician for a folk dancing group, and he asked me to teach his class of 2nd graders some dances. As you saw in previous posts, I taught them Sellenger's Round and Sir Roger de Coverly. He then took it upon himself to call his friend so that I could get introduced at the next country dance. I went and had a blast. It wasn't exactly as I had expected. We danced a country line dance and Swiss, Canadian, and Scottish folk dances. I met someone who lives close to me and was willing to give me a ride home (don't I always) and she even insisted that I go to the French folk dance session with her the following night. All of this took place January 27th and 28th. I haven't updated about this yet because I hadn't taken any pictures, but now that problem is solved. So the French night was fun, too. A group came from the Poitou region and taught us their dances involving a lot of jumping and stomping. They have a very interesting music, where the leader of the circle calls out a phrase and then everyone repeats it and that's it, no instruments. It's very driving. Most of the dances were in circles and we had to swing our hands to the beat.
Claude, the woman giving me a ride, then took me to a Bal Folk as it's known in French. At the ball (casual attire), we danced a lot of Breton dances (from Brittany) which are all in circles, super simple, and either you link pinkies or your whole forearm. We also danced waltz, polka, and schottische (spelled and pronounced "scottish" in France), which are all considered folk dances. Dance floors are crowded, so their dances tend to stay in place. Their mazurka is odd. It moves back and forth in a 180° arc, also not travelling. To be honest, I am very surprised that they dance polka, schottische, and mazurka, but I imagine they're even more surprised to see an American who can do these. I might even add that I was complimented many a time on my dance ability, even described as a "virtuoso." When asked how do I do it, I say that the secret is this: when I say "right," it's my right foot that moves. I've been writing the dances down, and I'll be asking for copies of sheet music so that I can bring these back home! I even got Nicole to come to a ball this past Saturday. She wasn't thrilled about it, but she was able to dance the waltzes and a couple of folk dances that weren't too difficult.
My impressions of French folk dancing so far are these: it's much simpler and less demanding than Scottish folk dancing; it focuses more on getting everyone involved than doing a figure perfectly; it's a living dance form, not resurrected or regularized but passed on by oral tradition, danced to songs also passed down by oral tradition, so it feels much more real and authentic than Scottish dancing.
Also in the realm of dancing, I've been teaching a dance class at an International apartment complex. We did a swing night, and I believe there's a post about that. This last Wednesday, I taught Scottish dancing (kind of), in French! It was my first time teaching Scottish dancing, so there's definitely a lot of kinks that need to be worked out, but we all had a lot of fun. We didn't quite have enough people for a set, so instead, I focused on circle dances found on a ceilidh website sent by Avril. Next time, I think we'll be doing country western dancing, taught by someone else.

In other news, February 2nd is a holiday in France known as Chandleur. No, no groundhogs are involved. Instead, everyone eats crepes. No one has been able to say why. Some attribute the holiday to a pagan festival, others to the waking of bears from their hibernation. It apparently translates to the ancient Christian holiday of Candlemass, which no one has heard of unless they've read a few Arthurian stories, celebrating the Virgin Mary. Following suit, we made a special trip to the supermarket where we bought premade crepes and had a fun little feast, preceded by a trip to the theater where we listened to a symphony of the King Arthur opera by Purcell, how a propos. The best part of that event was the choir acting drunk to sing a song that sounded oddly like "horny men," carrousing with the musicians and throwing articles of clothing this way and that. Here's a photo of me eating a crepe:

And no blog update would be complete without at least a little morsel of the scrumptious food we eat. Here's a picture of a recipe Nicole dredged up from her past: Tiger Butter (i.e. white chocolate, peanut butter, and dark chocolate).

And a photo of a nice day we had recently. Why not.